Washington National Cathedral’s online coffee hour nurtures small, close-knit community of remote worshipers

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 20, 2023

Members of the Zoom coffee hour at Washington National Cathedral find community though meeting every Sunday to discuss the day’s sermon and talking in small groups about other topics. Photo: Washington National Cathedral

[Episcopal News Service] Washington National Cathedral can accommodate as many as 4,000 people at the in-person worship services, concerts and other activities held inside its towering structure in the nation’s capital. At the same time, one of its most vital pandemic-era ministries has involved a more intimate group of up to 100 people gathered for coffee hour on computer screens, some of whom have never set foot in the famous cathedral.

Some regular participants in National Cathedral’s weekly online coffee hour told Episcopal News Service they initially fell in love with the cathedral’s online worship services, with their variety of music and engaging sermons. As many as 10,000 people watch the cathedral’s weekly Sunday Eucharist livestreams, and thousands more view the cathedral’s weekday Morning Prayer videos.

But is has been the Zoom coffee hour every Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern that, participants say, has brought a real sense of community and made a difference in their lives. The Rev. Autumn Hardestine, a retired priest who has served churches in both Pennsylvania and Florida, called the coffee hour “the most stimulating community I have ever been involved in.” And Bob Wohlsen from Northern California said that, though he remains active in his local congregation and diocesan social justice ministries, Washington National Cathedral further nourishes his spiritual growth.

“We need something like the cathedral to keep feeding us,” Wohlsen told ENS.

The cathedral’s dean, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, told ENS that the importance of online connections in the life of the cathedral has led to a search for a pastor for digital ministry who not only will serve the online community but, according to the job description, also will be empowered to bring “an entrepreneurial and digital-first approach to meeting the spiritual needs of all congregants, both in person and online.”

The crossover of the digital and in-person communities already happens weekly, Hollerith said. Every Sunday a handful of people will approach him to say, “You don’t know me, but I know you,” because they had worshipped online during the pandemic. “I’ll ask them what brings them to Washington? And they look at me like I’m an idiot, because they came to Washington to see us in person,” something he said he still finds amazing and for which he is grateful.

Information on joining National Cathedral’s coffee hour can be found on the cathedral’s website.

The cathedral organized its first Zoom coffee hour in the early months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, when the cathedral shifted to livestreamed services and found an overwhelming interest in such online offerings. Coffee hour participants initially numbered around 100, Wohlsen said, but these days about 30 people log in from around the world to participate. The gatherings follow the same format they always have – a time for greetings, a group discussion about the Sunday sermon and time in smaller groups where five or six people can talk more in depth. It’s in those smaller breakout rooms where people truly get to know one another, Wohlsen added.

Participants quickly learned protocols for participating in a large Zoom group, like raising their virtual hand before speaking so people weren’t talking over each other. Often, all the cathedral clergy will join, and whoever preached that day’s sermon always joins to participate in the group discussion.

“The preacher gets clear, concise feedback, not just a ‘nice sermon’ at the door,” Wohlsen said.

Lamplighters, here having a Christmas party, is a small group devoted to spiritual conversation that grew out of the Washington National Cathedral’s Zoom coffee hour. Photo: Deborah Lockhart

One of the regulars is a man from New Zealand who, because of the time difference is online Mondays at 6:30 a.m. Another, Frances Reilly, lives in New Jersey and has taken courses for lay people at Virginia Theological Seminary. During the sermon discussions, she said, “I can sometimes add a little bit to it.” She said she really likes being able to bring the sense of communal worship into the more intimate coffee hour.

Hardestine also helps lead a smaller support group, Lamplighters, that grew out of the coffee hour. Between 12 and 16 people from across the United States and Canada gather online for 90 minutes on Thursday evenings to focus on their spiritual lives. “We’ve gotten to know each other very well,” she said.

Also helping with Lamplighters is Beth Still of Michigan, and when she was asked about a true sense of community developing from online groups like these, she said until she experienced it, she wouldn’t have thought it could happen. Before she retired, she was a school principal with lots of online meetings, so “I would have thought it’s just a little square on your screen.” But this is different, she said, and she has made true friends in the cathedral’s online community. She and a woman in Seattle speak several times a week by phone, and she texts and sends cards to others.

This sense of connection has spurred them to be involved in other cathedral activities, too. Both Still and Wohlsen have taken part in Sacred Ground circles at the cathedral. Sacred Ground is a film- and readings-based dialogue series on race, grounded in faith that is offered by The Episcopal Church, and Wohlsen now is a circle facilitator for the cathedral. He also is a member of the Cathedral Congregation Committee, which meets monthly with the Rev. Dana Colley Corsello, who is vicar of the cathedral congregation. Reilly is part of the cathedral’s LGBTQIA+ Alliance, which helps “people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and faith backgrounds find their place in the church,” according to its website.

They are happy to get involved, though they also spoke of a deeper sense of purpose in their involvement. Still, a lifelong churchgoer, said she now feels much more spiritual. “I’m a different person because of the cathedral,” she said, and her daughters know not to call her on Sunday mornings when she’s “doing church,” because she wants to focus intently on what she is learning.

Hardestine said that for the first time in years she feels spiritually alive, thanks to “relevant sermons, lectures by significant individuals in the church and meeting new people.” She and the others consider the cathedral a primary spiritual home, and being online on Sunday mornings is a given part of their weekly routines.

Online community member Frances Reilly, seen here in a YouTube video, reads the Old Testament lesson during the Morning Prayer service during the September 2022 Homecoming, which invited online participants to visit Washington National Cathedral in person.

Some members of the online community also accepted an invitation to the cathedral in September 2022 for a special event called “Homecoming.” Reilly said she was thrilled to be asked to read the Old Testament lesson during the Saturday service of Morning Prayer.

Corsello, the vicar, quoted from Isaiah 43:19 in her sermon – “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” – to describe the cathedral’s relationship with its online community. “Thank you for journeying this uncharted path with us,” she said. “You trusted us and hung in there with us to create something new – a church without walls, a church where the love of Christ is present.”

She added that the online community also enriched the cathedral clergy serving them. “You have formed us as priests these last years in ways that we could never expect.”

For some of these worshippers, the impact of the cathedral has extended beyond themselves to others. Episcopalians aren’t always known for being good at evangelism, Still said, but she loves to share links to cathedral worship services or other events with others. As a result of watching those videos, Still’s sister-in-law, who had never attended church, began going to her local Episcopal church in southern California and now has been confirmed.

Reilly, who uses a wheelchair and can’t drive, was taken to Washington for Homecoming by a friend, also from New Jersey. Because of the welcome her friend experienced there, “he would like to become a member of the cathedral,” she said, “if they figure out how to do that virtually.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.